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Can Geoengineering Save the Planet?


Two Climate Scientists Debate Pros and Cons of Climate Engineering


The concept of geoengineering, whereby humans artificially moderate the Earth’s climate, is not the sexiest sounding topic, but a small group of scientists say it might be able to prevent catastrophic global warming. In a fast-flowing and sometimes heated head-to-head climate professors David Keith and Mike Hulme set out the “for” and “against.” Keith, a geoengineering advocate, doesn’t believe that this science is a solve-all but says “it could significantly reduce climate impacts to vulnerable people and ecosystems over the next half century.” While Hulme sets out his stall in no uncertain terms: “Solar climate engineering is a flawed idea seeking an illusory solution to the wrong problem.”

Geoengineering. It’s not the sexiest sounding topic, but a small group of scientists say it just might be able to save the world.

The basic idea behind geonengineering (or climate engineering) is that humans can artificially moderate the Earth’s climate allowing us to control temperature, thereby avoiding the negative impacts of climate change. There are a number of methods suggested to achieve this scientific wizardry, including placing huge reflectors in space or using aerosols to reduce the amount of carbon in the air.

It’s a hugely controversial theory. One of the main counter-arguments is that promoting a manmade solution to climate change will lead to inertia around other efforts to reduce human impact. But the popularity of geoengineering is on the rise among some scientists and even received a nod from the IPCC in its recent climate change report.

In a fast-flowing and sometimes heated head-to-head climate professors David Keith and Mike Hulme set out the for and against. Keith, a geoengineering advocate, doesn’t believe that this science is a solve-all but says “it could significantly reduce climate impacts to vulnerable people and ecosystems over the next half century.” While Hulme sets out his stall in no uncertain terms: “Solar climate engineering is a flawed idea seeking an illusory solution to the wrong problem.”

Enjoy the debate and do add your comments at the end.

David Keith: Gordon McKay professor of applied physics (SEAS) and professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School

Deliberately adding one pollutant to temporarily counter another is a brutally ugly technical fix, yet that is the essence of the suggestion that sulphur be injected into the stratosphere to limit the damage caused by the carbon we’ve pumped into the air.

I take solar geoengineering seriously because evidence from atmospheric physics, climate models, and observations strongly suggest that it could significantly reduce climate impacts to vulnerable people and ecosystems over the next half century.

The strongest arguments against solar geoengineering seem to be the fear that it is a partial fix that will encourage us to slacken our efforts to cut carbon emissions. This is moral confusion. It is our responsibility to limit the impact that our cheap energy has on our grandchildren independently of the choices we make about temporary solar geoengineering.

Were we faced with a one-time choice between making a total commitment to a geoengineering program to offset all warming and abandoning geoengineering forever, I would choose abandonment. But this is not the choice we face. Our choice is between the status quo—with almost no organized research on the subject—and commitment to a serious research program that will develop the capability to geoengineer, improve understanding of the technology’s risks and benefits, and open up the research community to dilute the geo-clique. Given this choice, I choose research; and if that research supports geoengineering’s early promise, I would then choose gradual deployment.

Mike Hulme: professor of climate and culture in the School of Social Science & Public Policy at King’s College London

David, your ambition to significantly reduce future climate impacts is one of course we can share along with many others. But I am mystified by your faith that solar climate engineering is an effective way of achieving this. More direct and assured methods would be to invest in climate adaptation measures—a short-term gain—and to invest in new clean energy technologies—a long-term gain.

My main argument against solar engineering is not the moral hazard argument you refer to. It is twofold. First, all evidence to date—from computer simulations and from the analogies of explosive volcanic eruptions—is that deliberately injecting sulphur into the stratosphere will further destabilize regional climates. It may reduce globally-averaged warming, but that is not what causes climate damage. It is regional weather that does that—droughts in the USfloods in Pakistantyphoons in Philippines. Solar climate engineering in short is a zero-sum game: some will win, some will lose.

Which leads me to my second argument. The technology is ungovernable. Even the gradual deployment you propose will have repercussions for all nations, all peoples, and all species. All of these affected agents therefore need representation in any decisions made and over any regulatory bodies established. But given the lamentable state in which the conventional UN climate negotiations linger on, I find it hard to envisage any scenario in which the world’s nations will agree to a thermostat in the sky.

Solar climate engineering is a flawed idea seeking an illusory solution to the wrong problem.

DK – You are correct that climate impacts are ultimately felt at the local scale as changes in soil moisture, precipitation, or similar quantities. No one feels the global average temperature. Precisely because of this concern my group has studied regional responses to geoengineering.

In the first quantitative look at the effectiveness of solar geoengineering we found—to our surprise—that it can reduce changes in both temperature and precipitation on a region-by-region basis. This work has now been replicated by much larger study using a whole set of climate models led by Alan Robock, one of the more skeptical scientist working on the topic, and they got the same result. While there are claims in the popular press that it will “destabilize regional climates”—presumably meaning that it will increase local variability—I know of no scientific paper that backs this up.

I have no faith in geoengineering. I have some faith in empirical science and reasoned argument. It’s true that we don’t have mechanisms for legitimate governance of this technology. Indeed in the worse case this technology could lead to large-scale conflict. This exactly why I and others have started efforts to engage policy makers from around the world to begin working on the problem.

MH – David, The point here is how much faith we can place in climate models to discern these types of regional changes. As the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown, at sub-continental scales state-of-the-art climate models do not robustly simulate the effects of greenhouse gas accumulation on climate.

What you are claiming then is that we can rely upon these same models to be able to ascertain accurately the additional effects of sulphur loading of the stratosphere. Frankly, I would not bet a dollar on such results, let alone the fate of millions.

You may say that this is exactly why we need more research—bigger and better climate models. I’ve been around the climate research scene long enough to remember 30 years of such claims. Are we to wait another 30 years? What we can be sure about is that once additional pollutants are injected into the skies, the real climate will not behave like the model climate at scales that matter for people.

As for getting political scientists to research new governance mechanisms for the global thermostat – you again place more faith in human rationality than I. We have had more than 20 years of a real-world experiment into global climate governance: it’s called the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s hardly been a roaring success! You must be a supreme optimist to then expect a novel system of global governance can be invented and sustained over the time periods necessary for solar climate engineering to be effective.

DK: You made a very strong claim that geoengineering is zero-sum. If true, I would oppose any further work on the technology. I responded that results from all climate models strongly suggest that this is not the case. Your response was to dismiss climate models. Assume for the moment that climate models tell us nothing about regional climate response, on what then do you base your claim that solar geoengineering is zero sum – that is, that it just shuffles winners and losers?

When climate skeptics rubbish models, I defend science by agreeing if all we had was complex models I too would be a doubter; but, I then argue, that we base our conclusions on a breadth of evidence from basic physics and a vast range of observations to simple—auditable—models as well as the full-blow three dimensional climate models. Models of atmospheric circulation and aerosols developed for earth make good predictions of the climates of other planets. This is a triumph of science.

The same science that shows us that carbon dioxide will change the climate shows that scattering a bit more sunlight will reduce that climate change. How you do you accept one and reject the other?

On the other points: I am not excited by an endless round of climate model improvements nor do it think that political scientist will solve this. We need less theory and more empiricism.

MH: David, I agree that we need less theory and more empiricism. This is one of the reasons why I am skeptical that climate models are able to reveal confidently what will happen to regional climates—especially precipitation—once sulphur is pumped into the stratosphere.

I don’t dismiss climate models, but I discriminate between what they are good for and what they are less good for. Having spent nearly half of my professional life studying their ability to simulate regional and local rainfall—by comparing simulations against observations, empiricism if you will—I have little faith in their skill at the regional and local scales.

But let’s assume for a moment that climate models were reliable at these scales. Another argument against intentional solar climate engineering is that it will introduce another reason for antagonism between nations. There are those who claim that their models are good enough to precisely attribute specific local meteorological extremes—and ensuing human damages—to greenhouse gas emissions. There will be nations who will want to claim that any damaging weather extreme following sulphur injection was aerosol-caused rather than natural- or greenhouse gas-caused. The potential for liability and counter-liability claims between nations is endless.

I am against solar climate engineering not because some violation of nature’s integrity – the argument used by some. I am against it because my reading of scientific evidence and of collective human governance capabilities suggests to me that the risks of implementation greatly outweigh any benefits. There are surer ways of reducing the dangers of climate change.

the guardian

14 Comments on "Can Geoengineering Save the Planet?"

  1. Davy, Hermann, MO on Fri, 24th Jan 2014 11:13 pm 

    It does not matter either way. The possibility of the world mustering the investment and cooperation in a coming time of contraction is highly unlikely. It like all the talk about outpost on Mars? Come on we are broke as a species lets be realistic and focus on adjustment and mitigation.

  2. Northwest Resident on Fri, 24th Jan 2014 11:19 pm 

    Short answer: NO

    Long answer: Not only NO, but F**K NO!

  3. DC on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 12:18 am 

    Geo-engineering is madness personified. Look at who actually promotes ‘geo-engineering’. Its a who’s who of globalist corporate criminals whose barbaric fossil-fuel engineering are the root cause of all our problems. The idea that ‘we’ can use our clumsy ‘technology’ to ‘save’ the world is insane. In fact, if you look at the geo-proponents, the only thing they are interested in ‘saving’, is the status-quo, the drive, shop, consume infinite growth economy. At best, Geo-engineering is fringe science, at worst, a deliberate attempt at global genocide.

    When well-heeled morons like Bill Gates and rest of his corporate buddies are on-board, you know it wont end well. If your looking for the ultimate case study in hubris and techno-narcissism, its hard to beat gro-engineering.

  4. J-Gav on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 12:29 am 

    Yes to all 3 of the above comments.

  5. dissident on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 12:50 am 

    There is a debate even when no capacity to dump 10 million tons of SO2 into the middle stratosphere every year exists. What a joke. Just think how much fuel would have to be burned to deliver it via aircraft as suggested by some numbskulls even though airplanes, particularly cargo ones, cannot fly above 20 km. Using giant cannons to fire enormous shells into the stratosphere is a load of sci-fi masturbation as well.

  6. rollin on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 2:05 am 

    Humans are already dumping large amounts of SOx into the atmosphere by burning coal and bunker fuel. That has already held back about 1 deg C of warming.
    Of course when the burning stops it doesn’t take long to get the rise, so why stretch the rubber band even further?

  7. Makati1 on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 3:57 am 

    In case you missed my comment below, you might like to read this:

    “Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem”

    Geoengineering is nothing more than visions of grandeur and godhood by techie dreamers. Not one tech advancement has been a positive in the history of mankind. Not one. Most, if not all, in the last 100 years, have come as a result of war research for weapons and then some version put on the commercial market if they could make profits.

  8. robertinget on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 4:32 pm 

    Damn that rollin on, he steals my comments all too often.. Look out rollin
    I’M comin 4 ya.

  9. Survival Acres on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 6:23 pm 

    The world does not need saving. The natural forces within nature will take care of its own.

    What needs ‘rescue’ is humanity and even more importantly (because no life can live without it), the whole of the biosphere and virtally ALL that still remains.

    But humanity is unwilling to stop doing what it has been doing – which is wrecking the planet. Until this is answered and resolved – there is simply no point in ‘saving the world’.

    Personally, I doubt it very, very much that humans will stop their activity and destruction. There is nothing in the historical record throughout all of human history in previously collapsed civilizations that indicate we can stop being the destroyer.

    Therefore, we should (and will) go extinct. This time, we’ve wrecked too much, bred ourselves into billions and literally painted ourselves into a corner. So be it.

    It’s already done. Cry about it all that you want, doesn’t change anything. Now we die, by our own hands.

    Geoengineering is like making a deeper cut with the same saw. It’s stupid beyond belief. Throw away the goddamned saw!

    For the dense – this means collapse civilization – now. As fast as possible. Do NOTHING more. Stop ALL oil extraction, fossil fuel burning, industry, business – virtually EVERYTHING. Yep, billions will die, but that’s going to happen anyway.

    Survivors will suffer and struggle immensely in order to stay alive. There is a tiny chance that some will survive – adapting to the hotter world. In a few thousand years, there is a possibility that humans will still be here, if the planet hasn’t heated too much (although this is increasingly unlikely).

    This is of course, what is going to happen anyway if you think it all through. All of civilization is going to collapse. Billions upon billions will die of starvation long before the excess temperature or sea level rise kills them. Even with geo-engineering, this is going to happen (too many postive feedbacks now triggered).

    The true solution is to stop our present ‘geo-engineering’ – the daily activity of terraforming the planet to our desires and demands. This would mean to dismantle civilization as we know it (virtually all of it) – and then, for those that are alive and remain, to live sustainable lives.

    It would be an ‘unrecognizable world’ but we actually DO know what it is. It’s what we found when we stole this land from the natives. It’s how humans lived for 40,000 years. The damage they did (which is true) was easily absorbed by the planetary systems. The biosphere was always able to recover because we limited our damage by limiting our numbers, and by not spewing forth billions of tons of carbon and not harnessing all that stored solar energy we found in the ground. Under those conditions – we survived. Under these conditions today – we face self-extinction.

    The only true ‘hope’ versus hopium humanity has is to abandon civilization altogether, thus finally stopping our rapacious practices and deeds.

    Of course, this is totally far-fetched and unrecognized and will be vehemently opposed, so then this means we’re utterly fucked. Everything but the truth will be tried – and everything will completely fail, repeating all the mistakes of industrialized civilization with the misfounded ‘hope'(ium) that ‘we can get it right this time’ despite all the evidence that we really don’t know what the fuck we’re doing.

    So we collapse anyway, and we WILL now die by the billions upon billions as every possible effort under the Sun will be tried to ‘save’ us. We will burn up the last of our carbon reserves. Big Oil and every other profiteer will desperately roll the dice, again and again and again, spinning endless lies and promises, and it will all fail in the end as the destruction accelerates. Humans simply cannot put the genie back into the bottle once let loose.

    One component of the genie is called ice. No way now to put it back. It’s also called carbon. No way now to extract it from the atmosphere in meaningful quantities. There are many other components of the genie, forests, soils, waterways, ocean, fauna – but you get the idea. It’s simply ludicrous beyond belief to think that humans can ‘control’ this (finally) and ‘replace’ all that was lost – and all the components and elements that kept us alive all these tens of thousands of years. Those that make this claim are simply deceiving you.

    The outcome is a virtual certainty now. Geo-engineering will be one way to collapse civilization, which is going to cause our extinction anyway. So pick your poison. Which ‘path’ is the most sensible and causes the least damage, and provides the best opportunity for a habitable planet?

    It’s dead fucking obvious.

  10. stevefromvirginia on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 6:51 pm 

    The climate ‘crisis’ has turned scientists into boobs. ‘Cold’ fusion (as well as the hot variety), thorium reactors, electric cars, the ‘hydrogen cycle’, space-based power generation and now this. Geo-engineering won’t work because none of the other forms of engineering really work, either.

    They are all just short-term, smash and grab tactics to give the children what they want at any given moment. Life-cycle engineering does not exist. An example: we have hundreds of nuclear time bombs around the world that nobody bothered to figure how to turn off.

    We are created in the image and likeness of Almighty God and the world is there for our (basest and most vile) purposes, right? What is God without Satan?

    Instead of geo-engineering, how about large scale tree planting, then taking aim at low-hanging climate fruit, such as agreeing to eliminate black-carbon and soot emissions, reducing nitrous oxide, photochemical smog and ground-level ozone, eliminating CFCs and ending biofuel subsidies, regulating emissions of ocean going ships and aircraft, etc.

    These are simply a few examples. All of the above are easy- inexpensive to implement, are undertaken currently in both rich and poor countries, etc.

  11. Lonewolf on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 6:57 pm 

    All IS Now. Then IS Not.
    Bye-bye Bipeds!

  12. Northwest Resident on Sat, 25th Jan 2014 7:09 pm 

    Survival Acres and stevfromvirginia — Don’t worry about any of that. We’ve got our top-paid scientists working on it, and technological solutions to all your concerns will be soon revealed. I know that, because I read it on, and doubly validated by and articles. Have no fear, technology is here.

    On a serious note — Excellent rant, Survival Acres. I believe like you do, that the best chance of human survival is unplug the goddamn machine asap — like, any time now… And because that appears to me to be the logical thing to do, I project my “logic” onto the mythical powers that be, and imagine that they are also collectively thinking “screw the little people, let them die, we need to stop despoiling the environment that I and my worthy descendants will live in and rule forever.” That’s why, I STRONGLY suspect that an event is shortly coming that will be the catalyst to near-total collapse. It is the only thing that makes sense. To continue on as we are for much longer than is needed for TPTB to get all their chess pieces in place is just too stupid to imagine.

  13. GregT on Sun, 26th Jan 2014 5:08 am 

    Survival Acres,

    Yes, it SHOULD be dead fucking obvious, but for the vast majority, they have no clue. People generally don’t do well with realism. We either stop now and face unimaginable horrors, or we continue on and face extinction. The sad reality of the matter is, we are probably already too late for unimaginable horrors.

    Northwest Resident,

    “I STRONGLY suspect that an event is shortly coming that will be the catalyst to near-total collapse. It is the only thing that makes sense.”

    I STRONGLY agree with you. If one is to believe that TPTB have any semblance of intelligence, it IS the only thing that makes any sense. The question remains; What exactly are they going to do? I have my suspicions, and all of them require people to be amassed in largely populated areas. That is precisely why my plans are to be very far away, and self sufficient.

  14. Northwest Resident on Sun, 26th Jan 2014 5:29 pm 

    GregT — There are a lot of people who tend to think that TPTB are a collective group of near-senile old men so wrapped up in their pursuit of digital wealth and power that they are ignorant of the impending doom that faces humanity, or that they are so selfish and short-sighted that they are just sitting in their McMansions thinking, “Got mine, screw it”. Or, that they are so diverse and so independently disconnected from each other that there is no way that they “collectively” are capable of directing the course of BAU or other major trends in the world.

    I STRONGLY disagree with those characterizations of TPTB.

    It seems pretty obvious to me that even though — given the entire collection of individuals that comprise “TPTB” — there are no doubt many of them that fit into the above-stated characterizations, there is still a solid and extremely influential core of individuals who are collectively “running the show”. They are sitting at the top of the world, monitoring the situation, processing information. They have access to all the secrets, to all the top scientists. Politicians and corporate CEOs and military commanders REPORT to them. To assume that the chaos we see in the world equates to ignorance of lack of planning on the part of TPTB is asinine, IMO.

    Oh yeah. They see it coming. They know that it can’t go on like this much longer. They saw that a long time ago, and they have been implementing their plans over an extended period of time. They know that they can’t waste every drop of obtainable fossil fuel on keeping BAU going, just for the sake of keeping BAU going. They must realize that the only option is to “pull the plug” before the environment they (and we all) live in passes the event horizon of no return. That all seems obvious to me, but not a lot of people tend to “get it”.

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